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Immigration is not a bad word
T&T’s population is approximately 1.23 million. We have one of the lowest population growth rates in the world: -0.09 per cent. The population of legal T&T immigrants living in the US? Just under 200,000. This month, US President Barack Obama announced that some young undocumented immigrants, numbering around 800,000, will now be safe from deportation. This move no doubt will affect some Trinis living in the US. While data is lacking on just how many T&T citizens are living in the US illegally, it is fair to say that the undocumented population may also be comparatively substantial.
Immigration today anywhere in the world is a complex topic. When it comes to T&T’s approach to immigration, however, there has been little concerted effort at either modernising it or dealing with its contemporary issues.
Nation of immigrants?
Immigration in the US is a contentious issue, unfairly conflated as it is with illegal immigration and complicated by economic, social and symbolic issues. Simplistic and negative rationalisations lead an alarmingly high number of Americans to believe that “immigrants are bad for the economy.” This isn’t true.
Immigrants help to create jobs by starting and supporting businesses, as Obama noted. They fill in critical vacancies from healthcare to farming. Immigrants spend money, pay into systems like Social Security from which they most likely will not benefit, and pay taxes—even up to 75 per cent of undocumented immigrants. And the presence of foreign workers has marginally increased wages across the US.
Social issues are also paramount in the debate: immigrants do not assimilate, refuse to learn English, commit crimes and depress neighbourhoods. Again, all of these are largely untrue. Building on the symbolic notion of America as “a nation of immigrants,” as John F Kennedy declared in his book of the same name, the US has no official language. Immigrants revitalise depressed neighbourhoods, bringing a new aesthetic, tradition, cuisine, art and music, all of which enrich daily life.
Those symbolic notions of America as a nation of immigrants and a land of opportunity, liberty and equality are being challenged by native-born Americans and even established immigrants who forget that their roots are buried across the ocean and not the across the street.
Equal place for all?
T&T, too, is a nation of immigrants “forged from the love of liberty” where “every creed and race finds an equal place.” Today, we see a small influx of foreigners most of whom are here to work, ie to fill in jobs for which we don’t have sufficient locals: doctors, pharmacists, construction workers and, of course, prostitutes. Yet our disposition towards immigrants is largely negative.
The fact is that T&T hasn’t implemented any concerted effort at dealing with immigration. As the world gets smaller, as job vacancies continue mushrooming and as the intra-Caricom labour flow grows, we need on a policy level to take this issue more seriously. On a social level, we need to remember where we came from and what the ethos of this land really is.
Up until 2009, detained illegal immigrants were housed not at a detention facility but at the country’s Maximum Security Prison. T&T’s Immigration Act (Act 41 of 1969) has had little amendment over the past four decades. In fact, it still prohibits “idiots, imbeciles,” gays and people who are “physically defective” or handicapped.
Indeed, we don’t appear to want anyone coming here. It was revealed several years ago in Parliament that, over a 32-year span to 2008, T&T granted residency approval for only 643 foreign nationals, the majority of whom were from China. Additionally, with close observation of the experience of some foreigners I know in T&T, I’ve seen how arduous the process is for being granted any kind of status, whether residency or work authorisation. From the immigration officers at Piarco to those in Port-of-Spain, the process can take years, is met with scepticism and, often, ignorance, and is utterly unwelcoming.
What we fail to realise is that, in addition to educating and empowering our citizens, we must also welcome those willing to come here and work for our country. The benefits of immigrants to the US outlined above are crucial to our understanding of immigration. Innovation drives the economy so entrepreneurs and highly skilled workers are important to our economic success. We are not isolated but rather a part of the global village that must compete internationally against increasing odds. And we must continue welcoming diversity in general since this, arguably is what makes us distinctive.
Compounding the issue is a problem that rarely makes the headlines but which will surely be our downfall. While we lament foreigners coming to our shores for any reason, we fail to notice how many are leaving these shores. There are 197,398 T&T citizens living in the US. Our net emigration is one of the highest in the world. At -6.76 per 1,000 of population, we rank 199 out of 220 countries. We have the fastest rate of people leaving the country in the West Indies behind only Guyana, St Vincent and Haiti.
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